DFT Casts Out Opposition as Conn is Suspended... Detroit Federation of Teachers President suspends opponent following closed-door 'trial'

The top officer of the Detroit Federation of Teachers served as judge, jury, and beneficiary in a bizarre trial on February 28, 2011, in which his defeated opponent was purged, at least temporarily, from the union . DFT President Keith Johnson “tried,” the man who ran as his opponent in the recent DFT election and, if we consider what was on all appearances a fraudulent count, won. But the vote was held, the fake count made, so the likely winner “lost.”

Detroit Federation of Teachers leader Steve Conn (above left, during an AFT conventions session sponsored by the Peace and Justice Caucus on July 10, 2010) has been suspended by DFT president Keith Johnson for seven months after a kangaroo court trial. Conn had protested the "victory" of Johnson over Conn by a margin of 40 votes in an election where Johnson's election committee refused to count hundreds of votes. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Steve Conn, a long-time radical dissident inside the DFT who led the 1999 Detroit Teachers’ wildcat strike, and Johnson’s 2011 opponent, was — imagine this — found guilty and suspended from the union for seven months. In that period, he is prohibited from attending union meetings and holding office, but he can still vote.

The trial was held behind the doors of the DFT offices, closed to members, sealed off by Detroit Police, according to DFT members who observed the strange proceedings. Approximately 40 Conn supporters could not enter the trial while Johnson cherry picked the witnesses he would hear.

Johnson charged Conn with “imposing himself,” on Michigan American Federation of Teachers boss, David Hecker. This video was used as evidence:

Given the raucous nature of many past DFT meetings, the charge seems preposterous, Conn and his supporters say. It is not assault. Hecker appears never to have been touched.

The national, state and local background are important as the tragedy of Detroit enters a new phase. Hecker, Johnson, and AFT president Randi Weingarten joined Robert Bobb, a Broad Foundation puppet appointed by the Michigan governor as "Emergency Financial Manager" of the Detroit Public Schools, in foisting what may be the worst contract in teacher collective bargaining history on the DFT membership. Faced with few choices, the DFT membership ratified it.

Recognition of the disastrous nature of the contract came late, but it did come as the Conn near-victory demonstrated. If there ever was an imposition, a fraud forced upon others, three would stand out in the DFT: the recent election, the contract itself, and now this staged trial.

Conn ostensibly fell forty votes short of electoral victory in the DFT runoff. His suspension is a clear effort to silence not just Conn, but about half the DFT membership.

Later, the DFT membership called for a new vote, noting that 700 ballots were not counted, among other grotesque irregularities. Substance covered all these events. The call for a new vote is linked here:§ion=Article

That move, however, was appealed to the national American Federation of Teachers offices by incumbent Johnson. A ruling is pending. Given that Conn cannot hold office, he may, or may not be blocked in that avenue.

The upshot of this kangaroo trial is, at least, two-fold.

The Detroit Public Schools, which at the peak in the late sixties were home to nearly 300,000 students and recognized as one of the elite big city systems in the US is in the midst of a very real financial crisis caused by (1) capital’s flight, (2) racism making Detroit a true ghetto, 90% black, levels of estimated unemployment at 50%, (3) corruption and incompetence running from the top through the bottom for about 25 years and (4), today, the unspoken lightning strikes: failed imperial adventures and the 2008 financial collapse resulting in a $12.9 trillion bailout to the nation's largest banks and other financial institutions.

While every major urban school system is in crisis, Detroit’s is in the midst of a disaster. Bobb has been authorized by the Governor’s appointees to close half of the Detroit schools. More layoffs are on the horizon–many more.

While Conn has a checkered record as an organizer, it remains that his leadership, along with his organization’s (the By Any Means Necessary (bamn) might have been able to mount a reasoned, effective movement involving the community, education workers, and students to push back against Bobb, et al. The DFT presidency would have offered him a real bully pulpit, not only in Detroit, but nationally–now denied.

Secondly, remarkable resistance rises inside the American Federation of Teachers, surprising many — including me — who considered the AFT’s rigid rules and caucus systems nearly impenetrable. While the national crisis of the schools deepens, AFT tops, like Weingarten, troll the nation offering more and more concessions–now devising schemes to eliminate tenure, a project essentially achieved in Detroit.

Whether or not Conn would be able to successfully work with others, like Chicago’s CORE, around the country is an open question, perhaps now mute.

The DFT decision to bar Conn from office can be appealed to the membership, requiring a 2/3 vote to overturn it. The next membership meeting is March 10th .

There are many other shoes waiting to drop in Detroit as well.

If we step back a bit, abstract, Detroit’s crisis is one of the most severe in a nation writhing in inequality, joblessness, a decade of failed warfare, and now a full scale assault on all poor and working people, disguised as sacrificing for the common, national, good.

Such is the case in Wisconsin, in fact, every state.

It is the upshot of a series of attacks that followed the Vietnamese victory: mental institutions closed and the ill tossed in the streets (Carter), attacks on the industrial working class (Reagan and PATCO), more war (Bush I), the welfare system, the real minimum wage, in essence abolished (Clinton), double more war (Bush II–all wars being fought by the working class for the benefit of elites), and now it is all in with the promise of perpetual war, financial crises, and the likely beginnings of stagflation.

It’s class and imperial war. The core issue of our time is those realities met by the potential of mass, activist, class conscious resistance.

That issue, a matter of life and death today, is undermined by the success of divide-and-rule maneuvers, too widely accepted by poor and working people. Heartening as activism in Wisconsin may be, it remains largely a Defend the White Middle Class Patriots (plus cops) movement that seeks, from the outset to bargain from its knees, more than willing to make massive concessions. But concessions do not save jobs. Rather, like blood to sharks, bosses just demand more.

In Detroit, and around the US, school workers, many of them with the skills that make organizers, sit in the centripetal organizing point of North American life, vital choke points where reason and power, capital and education, interact.

Whether educators can truly connect reason to power, and build that class conscious movement and make gains when elites are weak, or they fight back sector by sector (subs vs contract teachers, suburban vs urban, NEA vs AFT, etc) is one key question the entire working class needs to address. Rich Gibson is a co-founder of the Rouge Forum. The Rouge Forum Conference will be May 20-22 near Chicago at Lewis University. Substance editor George Schmidt will be a keynote speaker. Substance readers are encouraged to submit proposals for presentations and workshops.


March 3, 2011 at 1:20 PM

By: George N. Schmidt

Substance Comments Must Be Signed

March 3, 2011

The following was sent to an individual who tried to anonymously comment about Steve Conn and the current situation in the Detroit Federation of Teachers today here at


Your recent comment regarding Steve Conn has been removed from the Substance Web site.

Substance is not a blog. You must sign your full name (First Name and Last Name) in the "Name" line and provide us with an accurate e-mail address for your comment to be respected. If you wish to comment in the future, please follow these guidelines.

Just as our reporters and editors sign their by-lines for everything we publish and we try to source on the record every fact we quote, you have the same obligation to stand behind the words you wish us to carry with your own name and reputation. This is not a blog, where every coward can hide behind a convention of anonymity and try and get away with carrying every lie or half truth to the Internet and beyond.

Thanks for your time.

Solidarity Forever,

The Editors and Staff of Substance

August 3, 2015 at 1:32 PM

By: Brenda Burack

Steve Conn on trial again today in Detroit

Steve Conn has been serving as Union President since January of 2015. He brought many staff grievances to DFT Labor Relations review. His asociation with BAMN has irritated many DFT officers as BAMN members appear at meetings and marches. Today, DFT Vice-President is holding a meeting to determine if Exec Board members alone ,feel that he should not be allowed to continue serving as President. No Other DFT Members are allowed to attend this closed session.

Add your own comment (all fields are necessary)

Substance readers:

You must give your first name and last name under "Name" when you post a comment at We are not operating a blog and do not allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Our readers deserve to know who is commenting, just as they deserve to know the source of our news reports and analysis.

Please respect this, and also provide us with an accurate e-mail address.

Thank you,

The Editors of Substance

Your Name

Your Email

What's your comment about?

Your Comment

Please answer this to prove you're not a robot:

5 + 5 =